Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Disability Services Provision

This issue relates to adult day services in the disability sector and, in particular, transport to regions in the south-east. Cumas is a service in New Ross, Wexford, and SOS is a service in Kilkenny. A situation in SOS has come to my attention. There was transport for a particular individual prior to the arrival of Covid-19. Now that the service has reopened, the person concerned is attending two days a week but the transport is no longer accessible or does not seem to be accessible for this family. An elderly mother is driving her daughter to the day service, a daily 80 km trip. The mother obviously wants to keep her daughter in the service, and it is valuable to her, but it will not be possible for her to keep up that level of driving on a daily basis. Will the Minister of State look into this case specifically, if I send her the details?

There were issues regarding transport for Cumas in New Ross of which the Minister of State might be aware. I believe some funding for that service was recently announced. Perhaps she could confirm exactly what the funding was for and how much was involved. Would she consider meeting with the parents of the people who use that service? I acknowledge the way things are with Covid now but even an online meeting to discuss the situation would be welcomed by those parents. Since Covid has happened, they have an active parents committee which has come together on many issues. We have all learned from Covid how to manage situations better in the future, the importance of forward planning and not to be left wondering what to do when something unforeseen happens. Will the Minister of State confirm that funding was given to Cumas and what it was for? If she were willing to chat to those parents, they would welcome it. Will she also address the case of the individual in SOS, Kilkenny, the details of which I can pass onto her?

I apologise for being delayed in getting here. I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I have no problem taking a representation on behalf of the person in SOS from the Deputy and talking to her about it. I thank her for raising this important issue and giving me the opportunity to outline the position in regard to the resumption of adult day services and transport in community health organisation, CHO, 5, encompassing south Tipperary, Carlow, Kilkenny, Waterford and Wexford. Adult day services reopened throughout August and early September at approximately 39% capacity and, as the Deputy will be well aware, I have secured the funding to increase day services by an average of one day a week for more than 14,000 adult day service users.

Some service providers are now working so that the services operate safely and in line with public health guidelines. This has led to a reduced capacity in day services due to the need for social distancing, the physical limitations of buildings and a lack of mainstream community activities currently available. The public health guidelines, which were developed to underpin the safe reopening of adult day services, have also had an impact on the transport to day services. Although the HSE has no statutory obligation to provide transport services, some transport supports are provided by the HSE or funded through agencies on a discretionary basis. This can include services themselves providing transport and local transport such as Local Link. In general, disability service users are in receipt of a disability allowance and are automatically entitled to a free pass. Now that day services have reopened, the availability of safe transport is essential.

However, reduced capacity on vehicles means more journeys are needed to and from service locations for those that need it. As the service has resumed, transport providers have had to demonstrate that their services can be provided as safely as possible and with strict adherence to social distancing guidelines.

The Deputy raised the issue of Cumas in New Ross, which I visited in recent months. During my visit, I met with the providers in the company of Deputy Browne and Senator Byrne. They raised, no more than the good Deputy has done today, the issue of transport. I am glad to confirm that Cumas was allocated €147,652 at the end of November to address the transport issues that have been raised with me since September. This will be allocated in the December payment to the provider. This is once-off additional funding for transport from within the current budget for disabilities services and additional moneys I secured in September to support the resumption of services.

I understand the issue with that individual case and I have no problem working with the Deputy on it. The Deputy asked if I would meet with the families and of course I will. I will be more than happy to take part in a Zoom call in the company of other Oireachtas colleagues who would like to be on it. This is also an important opportunity for the Deputy and other Oireachtas Members in the area to meet with the CHO 5 to understand the funding allocation, the roll-out and the support they will give to service providers going into the new year in order that we can have a sustainable resumption of services and the proper link, which is the transport piece, to assure the families that the connectivity they require is in place, particularly in light of the fact that there is €145,000 set aside for transport.

I thank the Minister of State. I welcome that response. She has been honest and sincere and I am glad she is willing to meet with the parents in the area. They will be delighted with that and it is an excellent suggestion to meet with CHO 5. I could not agree with that more. It brings them into it and, in terms of accountability for them, that might be no harm.

In light of the Covid restrictions, I understand how difficult it has been to get services resumed but many families with children with disabilities or disabled members going into adult services are looking at the school situation. It is great that we have been able to reopen the schools but people look at that and ask why, if we can get it right in that sector, we cannot get it right in other sectors. I will pass on the details of the individual case and follow up directly with the Minister of State. I appreciate that. It would be great to organise the meeting and include CHO 5 officials. I am happy with that.

I have a little more information that I could not impart in my first contribution. Since being appointed Minister of State with responsibility for disability, I have, as the Deputy knows, visited that area thanks to my Oireachtas colleagues. I also met with Deputy Kehoe when I was down there. They have been continuously campaigning on the matters the Deputy has raised in the context of transport, the vastness of the area and the need for it. In that context, I have also met with the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and his officials on this issue. I made that meeting on the basis of what the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, presented to me concerning a very well-run LocalLink service in the area. As part of Connecting Ireland, we are looking at one of the first models we will roll out will be in that area because of the good services that are there already in relation to LocalLink. It is still being put through its paces to see where it will sit and how it will run but when one starts, one starts with one of the better models, which is in the Carlow area. We would hope to expand it into other areas and to include disabilities services.

We have, right across the country, a very good LocalLink service. LocalLink is 85% suitable for persons with disabilities to use and we now need to ensure that a person with a disability can get on the LocalLink vehicle. That is a piece which might have been missing in the past. As we have a good LocalLink there, we are looking to delivering it out to include areas of disability.

Land Development Agency

I thank the Acting Chair and I thank the Ceann Comhairle for giving me the opportunity to raise this important issue. As the Acting Chair said, NESC, which is a social partnership body, has underlined how the LDA will be a game-changer in tackling our housing crisis. As outlined by the Acting Chair and as many in the House will know, it can act as a State developer and will confront much of the dysfunctional, private developer-led development that has scarred some of this country. It will do that by assembling lands in strategic areas, purchasing lands strategically and using State lands. It will master plan compact sustainable urban development in these areas, break the hold of hoarders who have held much of the land and kept the land price too high, blend public and private finance so we get efficiency of cost delivery at scale and consult affordability head on.

These are important benefits that it can unleash. However, its potential will be killed at source if we continue to see the ideological, hard-left policy position that was exposed recently in the refusal of Dublin City Council to allow a development at Oscar Traynor Road to go ahead. That would comprise 853 badly needed homes for the community in that area. The reason they insist on turning that away is they do not want integrated development on public lands. I profoundly disagree. We need integrated development. Where we have had single-type development, even in our own area, it has not been successful. Look at the Ballymun flats, which had to be pulled down, or Darndale, which had to be radically transformed within 20 years of its construction. They also refuse to recognise that the State must seek to support everyone who needs homes: those who want to acquire affordable homes and buy a home for themselves, those who want cost rental, those who want private homes and those who want social housing.

The Oscar Traynor Road project was exemplary in the approach taken. It was a master plan developed in the four years since 2016. It would have ensured the provision of well-deserved facilities, including childcare facilities, public parks, retail opportunities and so on. The Oscar Traynor Road site adjoins a school. The plan involved a balanced mix, with 30% social housing, 20% affordable housing for purchase, 25% cost rental and 25% private housing.

In a transparent attempt almost two days after the decision was made, Sinn Féin sought to justify what happened by putting forward a misrepresentation of the comparative cost of direct build by Dublin City Council and the approach taken in respect of Oscar Traynor Road. The reality is that developing by means of direct build would have been €80,000 more expensive if done by the city council than under the programme developed in the master plan. That was available to all the councillors at the time but there was an attempt to muddy the waters.

We need to see the process relating to the LDA being accelerated. The LDA can be transformative but it must cater to all needs and break the problem of affordable purchase for many people. I ask the Minister to sit down with the NESC and discuss how the LDA can achieve its potential. It is a balanced social partnership and it recognises that some of the approach advocated by left-wing parties will undermine its value.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter and giving me the opportunity to update the House on the LDA and its role in the use of State lands. The programme for Government commits to the State playing a greater role in providing affordable and social homes, with a focus on low and middle-income earners and developing sustainable mixed-tenure communities. These principles guide housing policy as well as the agency's work in assembling strategic sites in urban areas and ensuring the sustainable development of social and affordable homes for rent and purchase. This will include ensuring that the public housing rental stock on public lands is under the control of local authorities, approved housing bodies or similar bodies. The programme for Government provides that any State land being offered for sale would automatically be offered first to the LDA. This would mean that, if such lands could be acquired by the agency, it would ensure that they remained in the State's ownership and were used to provide appropriate housing in line with the agency's mandate.

The agency was established on an interim basis in September 2018 by way of an establishment order. A revised general scheme of the Land Development Agency Bill to establish the agency as a commercial State agency was approved by Government order in October for priority drafting. It is intended that the legislation will be published shortly. My Department is working closely with the Office of the Attorney General on this draft legislation to ensure that the agency is given all the necessary powers to carry out its functions in line with those envisaged in the recently published NESC report.

The Land Development Agency has an immediate focus on managing the State's lands to develop new homes and regenerate underutilised sites in the long term. It will assemble strategic land banks from a mix of public and private lands, making these available for housing in a controlled manner that brings essential long-term stability to the housing market. Along with its initial eight sites, the agency is working in partnership with local authorities to develop a master plan at a range of strategic sites, for example, the Shanganagh Castle site. The agency, in partnership with Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, has been granted planning permission for the development of 597 homes on that site. It is intended that approximately 34% of the units in the development will be for social housing, 51% will be for cost rental and 15% will be for affordable purchase.

The tenure mix of sites will be considered on a site-by-site basis, taking into account the need to counteract undue segregation in the housing of persons from different social backgrounds. In addition, mixed tenures can help foster the organic growth of sustainable mixed communities.

As part of its remit, the LDA is working to develop an inventory of all relevant public lands to allow for the better management of, and strategic planning in respect of, these assets and the unlocking of their urban regeneration potential.

I acknowledge the role played by the former Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, in outlining the vision for the agency and devising it as a key tool for delivering social and affordable homes in mixed tenures on behalf of the State. This will provide high-quality homes for our citizens. The NESC report shines a light on how we can develop this process and the powers that the agency needs to be given to make a substantial impact on the housing market. I would have no issue with the Department and the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, meeting the NESC, given that the council is an important actor in this process. I thank the Deputy for the work his did on this matter as a member of the previous Government alongside Deputy Eoghan Murphy.

I thank the Minister of State for that and for making it clear that the vision for the LDA is to use public lands and meet the needs of all of our community, not just some sections of it. The ability to crack the affordability issue for many who want to buy their own home is central to the agency.

Will the Minister of State explain how the agency will deal with the Oscar Traynor Road site? There have been meetings and it has been suggested that the Minister should meet all parties to discuss how this project can move forward. The site is exemplary and blocking the development was a bad decision. Worse than that, if this approach continues, it will undermine the value of the agency that the Government is seeking to put in place. It is important that the Government make clear that the purpose of the Land Development Agency is to ensure that we confront the bad approach of private-only development in this country, which has not resulted in the ideal approach, balanced development and planned schemes of compact and sustainable housing that we want for the future.

It is important that the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage sits down with the NESC and work this out. We need a fit-for-purpose vehicle because we must be bold and ambitious. We are facing major changes. Not only will there be a 1 million population increase, but we must address that increase in a way that halves our impact on climate in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and caters for a rapidly ageing population. We need an agency that can devise a master plan for the new vision of Ireland that these changes entail.

I commend the Minister of State on his work to date and ask him to ensure that the proper approach is enshrined, one that serves our entire community rather than just sections of it.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important topic. The LDA will actively manage the development of public land in a way that will make a major contribution to tackling the root causes of our housing issues. Broadly in line with the NESC report, it will make a substantial contribution to the achievement of wider Government targets for social housing and housing delivery in general.

The agency has significant potential to play a wider role, not only in addressing pressures in the housing sector in the short-to-medium term, but in the longer term to enable the urban development objectives of the national planning framework to be realised. I have every confidence in the work of the LDA and that it will ensure the optimal usage of State lands, co-ordinate regeneration and development in opening key sites and unlock their potential, especially for the delivery of new homes.

Regarding the Oscar Traynor Road site, it is my view that protecting ideology trumped all and affordable, high-quality homes for our citizens were sacrificed. That approach serves no good for people who are looking for affordable homes. There were inaccuracies in recent parliamentary questions. They were presented to the public and the media in a way that spun a false narrative. We must point that out. I have spoken to the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, who has engaged directly with the local authority to try to bring about a resolution, but we must be clear, in that the ideology that has been advanced by some will serve society no good and will not provide the affordable homes in long-term tenancies that our citizens richly deserve.

Northern Ireland

The violence in Northern Ireland that overshadowed this country for nearly 30 years has left a long and harrowing legacy. That legacy is most acutely felt by the families of the 3,700 people killed in that violence in Northern Ireland. It is apparent that their killing continues to have a significant impact on the politics of Northern Ireland and this country.

It is important that we recognise that the dead of Northern Ireland are frequently referred to for the purpose of making a political point. That is perfectly legitimate. When unionists or loyalists refer to those who were killed by the Provisional IRA, they need to be listened to respectfully and carefully. Similarly, when republicans and nationalists refer to people who were killed by loyalist paramilitaries or the British state, they need to be listened to carefully and respectfully.

However, we need to recognise that there is an objective and purpose in trying to ensure that we can commemorate all 3,700 people who were killed during the Troubles in a way that is free from a political narrative. In many instances, the dead are being invoked for a particular political purpose. There is nothing wrong with that, but legacy issues have become part of the territory upon which political division in Northern Ireland now operates.

When we consider the 3,700 people who were killed during the Troubles, we can all recognise and accept that each of them deserves to be remembered.

When we go further and state why they need to be remembered, we can get into difficulty. Were we to say that each one of them died needlessly, that becomes an issue of political dispute. I believe, therefore, we can all agree that each one of the 3,700 people deserves to be remembered respectfully. We can also agree that collective memory will assist in reconciliation. We can see in Northern Ireland that, unfortunately, reconciliation has not been achieved to the level we would wish.

I tabled this Topical Issue matter because there is a monument to the 3,700 people who were killed in Northern Ireland, namely, a book called Lost Lives: The Stories of the Men, Women and Children who Died as a Result of the Northern Ireland Troubles, which was published for the first time in 1999 as a result of considerable work by five journalists, led by Mr. David McKittrick.

I read an article by Mr. Fintan O'Toole in The Irish Times at the weekend and it is apparent now that this book may be going out of print. The suggestion put forward by Mr. O'Toole in his article, and it is a suggestion I agree with, is that this State, perhaps together with the Northern Ireland Executive, should seek to purchase the rights to that book. If we managed to purchase the rights to the book, we could make the information in that valuable tome available online to the public. That book is written without judgment, political objectivity or a narrative; it simply records the stories of the men, women and children who were killed during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Were the State in a position to purchase the rights to that book, I believe it would achieve something in trying to ensure we have some monument, that the voices of those who died would be recognised and that people could simply look to see who were these men, women and children who died during the violence in Northern Ireland. If, however, we let this pass and this book goes out of print, it is clear that it will be contentious and difficult for us to get any collective agreement between communities in Northern Ireland as to how we can put together one complete memorial for all the people who died. It will become too contentious. That is why I ask the Government to consider purchasing the rights to Lost Lives. It would not cost much money.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. Lost Lives, which chronicles all the 3,700 people who were killed in the conflict, is a truly invaluable resource. In documenting each name, life and family, it is a work of both extraordinary scholarship and great empathy and inspires that empathy in all those who read it. Although those lives were tragically cut short, they will always be remembered.

The violence of the Troubles cuts across all sections of society regardless of background, age, gender or religion, inflicting an appalling 30-year toll. While at times deeply sad and unsettling, Lost Lives serves as a powerful reminder of the dark events of our recent history and demonstrates how crucial it is to ensure the successful and sustained operation of all the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement.

The book has also been given a new audience in a renewed lease of life with the production of the documentary by film-makers Mr. Michael Hewitt and Mr. Dermot Lavery. Last year, former Senator Ian Marshall organised a screening of the "Lost Lives" documentary in Leinster House. It is encouraging to note that Members from across all sides of both Houses the Oireachtas were present on that occasion, reflecting the cross-party co-operation approach to the peace process founded on the Good Friday Agreement, which is so important.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs has met families who have lost loved ones in the most appalling of circumstances, bombings and shootings that are dark stains on our history such as the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, the Kingsmill massacre, the Ballymurphy killings, the Birmingham bombings and others. They were attacks for which there could never be justification.

One thing that unifies all families who have lost loved ones in these terrible circumstances, whatever their background or identity, is a wish that no other family should have to suffer as they do. The peace we realised with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 must be protected and sustained, come what may. The importance of acknowledging, respecting and effectively dealing with the tragic legacy of the past cannot be underestimated. So many families lost loved ones during the Troubles and are entitled to support in finding truth and justice as part of the healing of the wounds of that conflict, and as part of building reconciliation.

The Government also facilitates the remembrance of lives lost during the Troubles through a range of projects and initiatives supported by the reconciliation fund. These include, among many others, the annual day of reflection promoted by the Healing Through Remembering group to facilitate quiet remembrance of the impact of conflict on lives across these islands, and the important work of the conflict archive on the Internet, CAIN, at Ulster University, which provides a comprehensive chronology of the Troubles and a permanent reminder of the tragic events which saw so many lose their lives.

The unforgettable message of Lost Lives and the terrible record of violence, loss and suffering it portrays so movingly is "Never again". The peace we have found through the Good Friday Agreement is the only fitting legacy for each of the lost lives that are documented in this book. It is important that this book, such a vital resource in that process of remembering, is protected and made accessible. While I understand the original publisher is no longer in operation, the Government would be happy to explore how we can be helpful, perhaps through a collaborative effort, in ensuring this hugely valuable work remains available for the future.

I thank the Minister of State for his considered and measured response. I also welcome the fact the Government is prepared to explore trying to purchase the rights of this book. This would be a beneficial step for this State to take. It is also important that we recognise it is asking much of the two communities in Northern Ireland to organise mutual reconciliation themselves. That is something any community would find extremely difficult to do. That is why it is so important that the Irish Government and, indeed, the British Government and Northern Ireland Executive play a part in this. Sometimes, when people can stand back from an issue a bit, it can be easier to try to look at it objectively to ensure we can try to achieve some fairness.

It is fair to say the book is not contentious. Most issues in Northern Ireland are contentious, particularly, when it comes to remembrance or in terms of legacy issues. This book sets out the detail of all those people who were killed during the Troubles. I agree with the Minister of State when he says the message that comes out of the violence in Northern Ireland can be summed up in two words: "Never again". We never need to ensure that because there is a division between Irish people, we must resort to violence. It is, however, imperative that we remember and recall it. That is why this book achieved so much, and bizarrely, when the book was started I do not believe the authors - the five journalists - had in mind this was going to be some great tome that would assume such reconciliatory significance. They simply wanted to record the people who died for the purpose of journalistic research. To date, however, in my opinion, it is the most effective way and method that exists of commemorating the people who died during the violence in a non-contentious way. I believe all the 3,700 people who died, and their families, deserve justice. We also need to recognise, however, that sometimes justice may not be attainable. What they certainly require, however, is truth. That is why I believe the stories of the lives of each of them who died should be recorded by this State and made available to the public at large.

Again, I thank the Deputy for his comments in response. It is important to acknowledge the key point that it is not a controversial book. Lost Lives serves as a powerful reminder that we must continue to work towards deeper reconciliation and that all we do is to heal the wounds we can. That is obviously done through the process of acknowledgement of the most painful parts of our history and that we move forward together. Therefore, what the Deputy has outlined in this Topical Issue is important. Lost Lives really reminds us of how crucial it is that we do not forget and that we keep working on the path of peace and deeper reconciliation. I thank him again for raising the issue.

Industrial Disputes

I am sure the Minister of State is aware that 491 jobs are in the balance at the moment. Liquidators have been appointed to the Arcadia group, which runs shops such as Topshop, Topman and Wallis, as well as concession stores.

I am sure the Minister of State will agree the first objective must be to save these jobs and to do so to the greatest extent possible. I join Mandate, the workers' trade union, in calling on the Government today to ensure we do not have a Debenhams mark 2. What steps will Minister of State take, in the first instance, to safeguard these 491 jobs?

They are people who will work throughout Christmas, when their future is very uncertain. I am sure the Minister of State will join me in feeling for them. It is okay to have a job, but not knowing whether one will still have it in January must be harrowing.

The second objective is to prevent a Debenhams mark II. These workers have a collective agreement that governs redundancy. They are very anxious, as is their union, that theirs will be a case similar to Debenhams and that they will find themselves in the same circumstances as the Debenhams workers whose employer walked away. They are appealing to the Government to take action.

I have an interest in what has happened with Arcadia and the provisional liquidators that have been appointed because almost 50 workers in Mayo have been affected. I, too, am asking for the Government to do everything it can to facilitate the saving of those jobs. That is imperative. These workers are all going in over the Christmas period to work really hard, but the uncertainty is causing them such anxiety and worry because they have lives and many of them have mortgages. I ask that the Government do everything it can. In the event of redundancy, it is crucial that the collective agreements that have been made be stood over in respect of the redundancy that has been offered and that is the entitlement of these workers. We do not want another Debenhams-type situation, as my colleague, Deputy O'Reilly, noted.

When I was on the picket line with Debenhams workers in recent months, many of them indicated that even if they did not get what they were due from the agreement they had made with the company, they wanted to ensure that no other workers would be put in a similar position. They were talking about what would happen post Christmas. They did not really expect a company the size of Arcadia to go just before Christmas. In the constituency of Dublin West, Topshop, Dorothy Perkins and Burtons face potential closure, while Miss Selfridge and Topman have already closed, along with Debenhams. Workers have asked me why we are still allowing businesses to trade when they behave in such a cold way. That is borne out of the frustration of what they see in the case of the Debenhams workers. They ask why staff members' redundancy agreements are not being protected even after the Debenhams workers being on strike for such a long period. We know what the issues are because this happened previously with Clerys. They are puzzled, annoyed and angry that they have been left in this position, in the same way the Debenhams workers have been.

Joint provisional liquidators have been appointed by the High Court to the four Irish operating companies that are part of the UK fashion group Arcadia. It is a real worry for the workers in all of these stores, who are in danger of losing their jobs. I fully appreciate, as do the Government and the Department, how difficult this is for those involved and their families, not least at this time of year and given the difficult year it has been with Covid-19. This is not the news they wanted. We all know about the pressure on the retail sector, along with other sectors, but we remain hopeful that we can minimise the number of job losses in that sector as a whole in the months ahead. That will be the aim of the Government, without a doubt.

While these are worrying times and this is worrying news, it is hoped to procure the sale of the Irish operations as part of an overall sale of the Arcadia group and that the Irish stores will continue to trade through Christmas in order to maximise the value of the stock. I accept that this will be very difficult for the employees, who are turning up every day to work long, hard hours without knowing the long-term status of their jobs. There is a hope, shared by everybody, that a buyer will be found for these shops and businesses to keep these jobs alive. The Government hopes a suitable and sustainable buyer can be found and that any potential job losses can be avoided. Beyond this, it is difficult to comment on specifics just yet, given that the matter is before the courts and, as such, is sub judice. The process is still at a fairly early stage.

The Protection of Employment Act 1977 imposes obligations on employers that propose collective redundancies, including obligations to engage in an information and consultation process with employees’ representatives and to provide certain information relating to the proposed redundancies. Where an employee believes the employer to be in breach of those obligations, he or she may pursue a complaint with the Workplace Relations Commission. There is also an obligation on employers proposing a collective redundancy to notify the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. I am advised that, up to yesterday evening, no notification had been received.

It is the responsibility of the employer in the first instance to pay statutory redundancy and other wage-related entitlements to employees. However, the Social Insurance Fund provides a safety net for employees to ensure they receive statutory entitlements in circumstances where the employer cannot pay due to insolvency. This issue was raised in the House in the context of other companies as well. The State steps in to cover all statutory entitlements, whether redundancy, due wages, holiday pay and so on. Where the compensation goes beyond that in regard to further arrangements with employees in respect of collective agreements and greater entitlements, it is generally a private arrangement with the company. The State does not guarantee such agreements and is not in a position to do so. Entitlements covered under the insolvency payments scheme include arrears of wages, holiday pay and sick pay. In all the previous cases that were mentioned, the State paid out and always does, because that is what a State guarantee is about and that is what the Social Insurance Fund is there to do. One hopes that will not be needed in this case and that the fund will not be drawn on. To reiterate, there has as yet been no formal application.

High-street retailers have been under pressure for some time and Covid-19 has challenged the sector further. The Government is working in a co-ordinated way and has committed unprecedented levels of financial supports to help businesses through these difficult times. We will of course work with the company in question and all companies to protect jobs and the sector. We know the importance of the retail sector and of the workers in that space. It employs more than 300,0000 people and many of them are highly skilled, with long careers in the sector. We want to develop that and to recognise those skills in a more formal way, but also to develop people's skills to deal with the challenges of the future. Retail is a challenging sector but there is a great deal of opportunity to sustain and create jobs in the sector if we make the right investments. The retail forum is held weekly to work with the sector to try to secure its future long term because it is a massive employer.

Reference was made to Mayo. The regional spread of jobs in the retail sector is well recognised and of utmost importance to the Government. We will do everything we can to protect jobs in this space. The expectation is that a buyer will be found in this case. We also hope that a purchaser will also be found in the UK to protect the jobs in the parent company.

That reply was very disappointing. The Minister of State said the Government would do all it can to protect the jobs, but is it going to do anything, however small, to protect the workers' collective agreement? Of course, we all hope that it will not come to it and that the jobs can be saved. We all recognise, as the Minister of State pointed out, that high-street retail is under pressure. That is nothing compared with the pressure these workers will be under working through the busiest time of year in a crowded setting, during a pandemic, when at the end of the season, they will not even know whether their collective agreement will be honoured. They fear that they will end up as Debenhams mark two. They are appealing to the Government to intervene and to do everything in its power to assist them in achieving the terms of their collective agreement. They are very anxious.

One would need a heart of stone not to have sympathy for those workers going in to work at the busiest time of year without knowing whether they will have jobs in January. Worse again, they do not know whether their collective agreement, which they have worked under and which was negotiated with their trade union, Mandate, will in fact be honoured. We cannot keep shrugging our shoulders and saying we hope there is not another Clerys, TalkTalk, La Senza or Debenhams. Successive Governments cannot keep letting down workers like this. They want to hear more than sympathy from the Minister of State. They want to know what the Government will do to protect their collective agreement.

While I accept that the Minister of State said he hopes a buyer will be found, if one is not found, the very minimum that needs to be done is that these workers should have an assurance that their collective agreement will be honoured at the end of the season. That would be of some consolation to them.

These are really important jobs to Mayo, as the Minister of State said.

There is a further issue with some of these workers who volunteered to go in to get the shops in Ballina and Castlebar ready before 27 December and then they were cut off from the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, even though they had the number of qualifying weeks, etc. I ask that the Minister of State would look at this. It is mean-spirited to cut them off from the PUP payment, particularly on a day former politicians received an extra €16,000 pay increase on top of their €130,000 per year pension entitlement. It gives out the completely wrong message from Government. I ask the Minister of State to extend the PUP payment to them as well and give them the assurances that their collective agreement will be honoured. That would go some way towards fulfilling his obligation toward these workers.

We all hope - the workers more than anybody else - that their jobs will be secure and that a buyer will be found for those shops, particularly, as I said, in Dublin 15, in Dublin West, in the Blanchardstown Centre, where we have three of those shops and, potentially, hundreds of jobs. However, we also have to prepare for the possibility that they may not be bought. Unfortunately, from what I have heard so far, because I asked the Taoiseach these same questions last week when I raised the same issue, is that the workers were given the same answer, which is, as a representative of Deloitte had said to them, they will only get the statutory redundancy if the company closes. They need to hear more than that from the Minister of State. They need to hear that the Government will stand up for them against these companies which think that they can let the workers down - make an agreement and walk away from it. They have done it with Debenhams and we have had people on strike for eight or nine months now.

It is disgraceful and unfair after that length of time, another set or workers is facing that. I am disappointed to hear again that those workers will only be entitled to statutory redundancy if the worst comes to the worst. The Government needs to step up to protect workers.

I will try to respond to some of the questions. The PUP entitlements is not an issue I was aware of. It is certainly something I can check out, if Deputy Conway-Walsh wants to give me the details. I will certainly discuss that with my ministerial colleague behind me, Deputy Humphreys. We can certainly look at that, if there is any issue with PUP entitlements and unfairness. In fairness, that Department has responded strongly throughout Covid regarding PUP entitlements. I note the Deputy is nodding in agreement. If there is any issue there, we can work on that. There has been a strong response from that Department and from the Government as a whole when it comes to those payments right throughout the system and we recognise the various sectors as well.

It is important that all of us in this House are honest with people in this situation and tell them the truth. The truth is a collective agreement is a third-party private agreement made between employees and companies. It is not a State agreement. It is not something the State has given statutory backing to and, therefore, I cannot say that the State will pay out on that. The State, through the Social Insurance Fund, which is a fund put together by taxpayers and by workers, pays out on statutory entitlements, which is two weeks' redundancy, holiday pay, wages due, etc. That is what it is. It is wrong, and slightly dishonest, to say the State can or should pay out on a third-party agreement. It does not do that, and it has not in the case of Debenhams and in this case as well.

We are not at the redundancy stage here yet. There has been no notification of it yet. We all hope to avoid that. Without doubt I hope, for all those employees' sakes, we can avoid that.

I can confirm that the State, of course, will step in and make sure statutory entitlements are paid. That is what the State does for everybody, and rightly so, but the company has the first responsibility to pay out on that. If this ends up in a full liquidation process through the courts - it is not at that stage yet - the various assets of the company will have to be looked at by the liquidators in view of the courts to deal with who gets paid what after that. The State steps in for statutory entitlements and will not be found wanting - I can confirm that to the employees - for their statutory entitlements.

The Debenhams case was mentioned. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, has processed at this stage more than 1,600 applications to two funds to recognise the workers' statutory entitlements in Debenhams as well.

I reiterate that there is a connection being made here with this company and Debenhams' company and other companies as well. Every situation is a little different but it suits some Members to constantly try and draw a connection to Clerys. I say again that I have not seen the evidence to say that the Debenhams or Arcade Group cases are the same as Clerys, yet Members keep bringing that up here on a regular basis. Connecting the two adds to the dishonest conversation for all these employees who are in a vulnerable and difficult situation. If there is evidence to say they are the same, I ask Members to bring it forward because I have not seen it. There are laws and protections there.

I met the Debenhams workers and I gave a strong commitment that I would work with them and others, specifically, with Gerry Light of Mandate, to strengthen the legislation. The Minister of State, Deputy Troy, and myself, on behalf of the Tánaiste and the Department, met and said to Debenhams that we will strengthen the workers there and that if we can identify areas of weakness in the law in respect of insolvency and redundancy, we will strengthen that. There are working groups doing that work. It is an ongoing process. They are linked back there. If we can find in that process - the committee is doing the same - areas where we can strengthen that, we will do that. That is different from trying to draw a link with Debenhams or Arcadia Group to Clerys. If the Deputies believe that, I ask them to show me the evidence and bring it in. It would certainly help me do my job and it would certainly help other Departments do their job as well. However, to constantly draw that link and make the connection is unfair to the workers of those different companies.

As the Minister of State with responsibility for this area, I will go to great lengths to strengthen legislation when I can prove it will be effective and worthwhile. There have been reports of that in the past. Where we can make changes, we will do that. That commitment was given to the Debenhams workers.

Deputy Conway-Walsh is correct that they had two asks in their campaign. The first was that the company would pay out on the collective agreement they had made. That is what they want and they are out protesting to get that entitlement. They are entitled to chase that up, demand that and look for that. The second part of their campaign was that we as a Government would change legislation to strengthen it to prevent such cases in the future. Their ask is probably related to an assumption that Debenhams is the same as Clerys. I said that regardless of what the connections are with any companies, we will examine the legislation to make it stronger and better, if we can, to protect their entitlements going forward. However, I have to also be honest. There is a difference between statutory entitlements and private agreements through collective bargaining. We are looking at that area as well. The programme for Government does that. The Taoiseach and Tánaiste said it as well. We recognise that too. However, they are two separate issues and they are not always recognised as separate in this House. For employees, of course, they want to pursue all their entitlements as much as they can, and rightly so. They should do that.